A History of Small Communion Cups
I visited a church on New Year’s Eve partly to see the inside out it. Unlike most Parish Churches in Jersey, other churches tend to be closed except for services. This also includes Anglican District Churches. This, however, was Quennevais Evangelical Church.
The people were very welcoming without being “over the top”. I have visited, briefly, one of the more charismatic churches in Jersey, and the effusive way in which one is greeted, almost like a long lost relative, I find disturbing. It is what psychologists have termed “love bombing”. None of this was present at Les Quennevais Evangelical Church, where the members of the congregation were friendly, came to say hello and make a stranger feel welcome, without feeling invasive.
Communion took the form of bread, unleavened from a loaf, and fruit juice administered in individual cups, along with the singing before and after of a very lovely hymn which I had not come across before.
The use of individual cups is something I have encountered before in Methodist Churches, and I thought it would be interesting to see where the practice came from, as it certainly has not been around for the bulk of church history.
It appears first in America, in the 1890s, driven largely by concerns about hygiene, and spread to most but not all Protestant Churches. Lutheran Churches still use a single cup, and I feel that it would not be wholly accurate to describe the Anglican Church as Protestant although it has Reformed elements.
Luke T. Harrington, writing on the subject, notes that:
“It’s actually not known with a ton of certainty which congregation was the first to use individual communion cups—there are at least seven congregations making the claim—but it is known that the idea is barely over 100 years old, it’s uniquely Protestant, and it was invented somewhere in the American northeast. In any case, it’s clear that it didn’t take long at all to go from gold-and-silver, to cheap glass, to über-cheap plastic.” (1)
“It’s a practice that’s commonplace and unremarkable now, but after nearly 2,000 years of sharing a single cup among everyone in the congregation, it was a radical change.” (1)
He puts the context in which it arose in America to do with industrialisation:
“What made it seem like such a good idea? Part of it was just a side-effect of industrialization. More people had been moving into the urban centres for a new life of 12-hour sweatshop shifts and never seeing the sun again, and because the sewer hadn’t been invented yet , the era was seeing outbreaks of infectious diseases like diphtheria and tuberculosis” (1)
The practice spread rapidly, so that by 1906, “Pastor J. D. Krout published an article in Lutheran Quarterly arguing that (1) no one can say for sure that there was only one cup at the first Lord’s Supper (except, presumably, everyone who had ever read the relevant Scriptural passages before he did), (2) individual cups are more sanitary, and (3) hey, it’s more convenient.” (1)
I located the article by the Rev. J.D. Krout, entitled "The Individual Communion Cup," and published in the United Brethren Review 17:2 (March-April 1906), 101-105. It is scary stuff. It is not "hell fire" but "health fire"!
“Here we have a man with a much-detested growth on his lips; again, we have the constant use of tobacco discount cigarettes; now we have one with a throat-and-nasal disease. The detested growth is immersed in the wine, the abominable tobacco is washed from the lips, and the germs of the throat- diseases are disseminated in the wine. The discreet brother and sister are to follow. And all joy of the divine communion is lost in the thought of the brother who preceded.”
“They sip of the cup timidly, with no thought of the meaning attached thereto, or perhaps they never allow the wine even to touch their lips. They shrink from the idea of opening the system to the germs of the disease, and they revolt at the unclean brother who has preceded. This is all eliminated by the individual cup. Were it not better for those who believe this bacteria question to be of no consequence, to say with Paul: "If meet maketh my brother to offend, I will cat no more meat while the world stands"? The choice between the individual cups and the common cup involves a choice between clean and unclean.”
“Apart from the sanitary and cleanly aspect is that of its convenience. The individual cup not only expedites matters, but it also relieves the minister of a great nervous strain. In administering the Supper with the common cup the minister must be continually on his guard lest he tip the cup too far or perchance not far enough; in the one case spilling the wine and causing disorder, and in all likelihood causing the recipient to lose all thought of the solemnity of the occasion; in the other case he will offend the communicant by not allowing him to partake of the blood of our Lord. The tipping of the cup to the proper angle is not only difficult, but also very trying, especially when administering to the "large-hatted" sister, and of necessity requires considerable time.”
In fact, as Harrington notes that:
“If you’re wondering, there’s actually never been a disease outbreak traced back to the common communion cup. Nor is it likely to occur, given the particulars of the ceremony—silver and gold don’t constitute a hospitable environment for bacteria, and neither does an alcoholic beverage.” (1)
Brenda T also looks at the history:
“In the late-nineteenth century, when outbreaks of diphtheria and tuberculosis were common, American sanitarians agitated to reform this religious practice—though no disease contraction had been linked to the use of a common communion chalice.”(2)
The earliest recorded mention she finds is a letter to a newspaper by the Rev. H. Webb, pastor of Scovill Avenue Methodist Church of Cleveland, Ohio.
“In the letter, Webb wrote that he believed his church’s first use of individual cups on December 6, 1891 was “absolutely the first time or case where it has been thus served” (December 2, 1892, p. 2). Reports in December 1891, in both The Brooklyn Daily Eagle and the Utica Morning Herald, stated that the Scovill Avenue Methodist Episcopal Church of Cleveland first used individual cups on December 6, 1891. These two reports also detailed that some of the cups “had to be washed” during the service because the number of people who attended outnumbered the seventy-two available cups.” (2)
The practice spread, and the Centennial Methodist Church of Newark, New Jersey, implemented the use of individual cups for the first time on March 3, 1893
In 1894, Bedford Avenue Baptist Church of Brooklyn, New York, advertised what The New York Times termed a “novelty in communion service” (October 8, 1894). Two newspapers had announced in late September that this church would implement individual cups.
But as Brenda notes:
“However, attendees who arrived expecting the individual cups “were disappointed” to see the same old six silver goblets (The New York Times, October 8, 1894). After the service, Rev. Gunning called a business meeting during which he said he was anxious that his church be the first in Brooklyn to use individual communion cups. A majority voted, by standing, to purchase 200 three-inch tall silver cups lined with gold at a cost of thirty-five cents per communicant.”
It is interesting to note how the original cups resembled the chalice, and was metal, not plastic or clay.
Coming to England
In the UK, the first Primitive Methodist Chapel was built in Tunstall, Staffordshire in 1811, near to the pottery works. It was refurbished and reopened in 1905.
That is interesting, because as Jill Barber points out:
“On the occasion of the reopening on 23 March 1905, Councillor G Goodwin presented a 'Sacramental Service and Cabinet ... to the Leaders of the Jubilee Primitive Methodist Church ... in memory of his father Thomas Goodwin and his father in law John Cope who had been local preacher over fifty years.' The minister was John T Horne.”
“The pottery communion cups laid out in front of the pulpit were some of the earliest to be used. Before that a chalice would have been used, but at this time there was new understanding about how diseases were transmitted which led Methodist churches to abandon the single chalice for individual cups.” (3)
But it was only just spreading and not quite widespread. Tim Kendall reports on the single chalice that was part of a Holy Communion field kit belonging to the Primitive Methodist Senior Chaplain Rev George Kendall OBE .
He took Communion in the field during most of the major battles in WW1. For the period 1915-18 it was used by men from a number of regiments including the Welsh Division, Northumbrian fusiliers and the Royal Artillery. For many, it was their last Communion on earth.
“The Chalice is slightly buckled. This damage occurred during the middle of Rev Kendall's Holy Communion service in a trench hut, during the battle of the Somme 1916. The hut, filled with soldiers, sustained a direct hit from a big shell which exploded near the makeshift Communion Table, demolishing the hut completely. No one was hurt; Thanks to Rev Kendall, the hut was empty.”(4)
By 1918, however, peacetime saw the widespread use of the individual communion cups across Methodism in the UK, and presumably (although I have been unable to find documented evidence), the Channel Islands